- Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France
In Real NASCAR, historian Dan Pierce takes on the challenge of uncovering the true story of stock car racing and its place in the culture of the Southern Piedmont region. He states that his goal is to explain why people of the Piedmont South identify so strongly with stock car racing and to craft a narrative history of the sport in the South up through the retirement of NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. and the beginning of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s title sponsorship of NASCAR’s top series in the early 1970s.
Pierce attempts to separate myth from documented fact. It is a daunting task. The history of the sport is primarily oral; stories have been told and retold with various embellishments, making it very difficult to winnow the facts from the frills. The sport was frowned on by polite society, and newspaper coverage was spotty at best. NASCAR is a family-owned private business and its archive, the most lucrative source of information on the sport’s early years, is not open to the public. Pierce has relied heavily on oral interviews and accounts in newspapers and racing periodicals to supplement the primarily popular publications about the sport. With meticulous attention to source and detail he documents the history of stock car racing and highlights two linked stories—the relationship of stock car racing and moonshining, and the rise of William Henry Getty “Big Bill” France from penniless service station owner to head of a spectacularly successful national racing enterprise.
While stock car racing was practiced from coast to coast, it found a true home in the Piedmont of the Southern Appalachians, a crescent stretching roughly from Richmond, Virgnia, to Birmingham, Alabama. Pierce identifies several reasons for this, including a [End Page 158] male culture that valued the “hell of a fellow” daredevil sportsman ethos described in W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1941) and a growing blue-collar class yearning for something to transport them beyond the impoverished, mind-numbing boredom of farm and mill work. In Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (2000), Pete Daniel ascribes the traits of independence and violence to the white working class of the region, traits that could be temporarily soothed by watching dangerous, aggressive racing in cars that very much resembled the ones they drove themselves. The red clay of the Piedmont was perfect for building slick, fast dirt racetracks. And then there was the booming illegal whisky business, which produced bootleggers who honed their driving skills running liquor as well as lots of cash.
A duet of moonshining and racing makes a great story, perhaps too good a story. While it is generally accepted that some of the early racers were bootleggers, most scholars have viewed the importance of illegal whiskey making to stock car racing as more romantic fiction than fact. Pierce admits that he began his research with the same predisposition but discovered that the two were inextricably tied together in the early days of the sport: whiskey money built tracks and promoted races, whiskey money fielded race cars, and whisky drivers won many of the races. He says, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the sport was built on the proceeds of the manufacture, transport, and sale of thousands, if not millions, of cases of white liquor . . . in the Piedmont region of the South and its adjacent foothills” (p. 8).
In 1935 Bill France moved his family from Washington, D.C., to Daytona, Florida, became involved in both promoting and driving in races, and soon recognized a real opportunity for a man with brains, vision, and toughness to organize the unruly sport. He allied himself with a number of men with ties to moonshining, including Atlanta entrepreneur Raymond Parks, known as the godfather of stock car racing; Enoch Staley, who built North Wilkesboro Speedway and (with France as his partner) Occoneechee Speedway, probably...